Not all passive voice is bad

The first thing they teach you in English classes is: don’t use the passive voice. 

I strongly believe that not all passive voice is bad in writing. I’m not saying you should always write in passive voice. I want to be clear that I am totally all for active voice in writing whenever it’s possible. You want your sentences to be clear, and it’s true that active voice succeeds more often than not at maintaining clarity. But one or two passive sentences in an an article or essay shouldn’t be such a big deal. 

What’s the issue with passive voice anyway? Here’s an example of a sentence with passive voice: “The boy was bitten by the dog.” In a passive sentence, the subject (the boy) is acted upon. Usually, passive voice distances the action from the person who performed said action. If you take a writing class, you’ll notice that they strongly discourage you from writing in passive voice and prefer that you use active voice instead (“The dog bit the boy”). I’m not saying to overuse passive voice. Frankly speaking, you don’t want to overuse any kind of sentence in writing. Too much passive voice isn’t cute, but that doesn’t mean we should exclude it entirely.

Take for example, the fake scenario that Earth is attacked (yes, it’s corny but bear with me). The sentence, “The Earth was attacked” is passive. Sure, it could be aliens or some sentient beings or whatever, but, what if we don’t know who attacked Earth? What if all we knew at the time was that Earth was attacked? Surely, the sentence “The Earth was attacked” couldn’t possibly be a problem. Yet, some writers are so keen on using the active voice, that they avoid using the passive voice entirely! It’s frankly a little ridiculous—why can’t we just have a balance in writing? It is exhausting when we take everything to the extreme.

Yes, there are good reasons why we should use active voice whenever we can. Passive voice sentences tend to be longer, indirect, impersonal, and can even come across as evasive. So if it’s possible, definitely choose active voice. But can we please get rid of the narrative that passive voice is the absolute worst? Sometimes when you’re writing, the actor or author is unknown. Or you just want to be vague. (Who wants to read a mystery that reveals everything in the first chapter anyway?) Sometimes the focus isn’t on the person, but the action being done. “My car was stolen.” Who stole it? Obviously, a thief. When you want to keep the focus on an action or the recipient of said action, it can make more sense to omit the doer. In certain scientific and legal contexts, the experiment or procedure is more important than who is conducting it. There is a time and place for passive voice—as with all writing techniques. 

Sometimes, the passive voice is unavoidable. Using passive voice shouldn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Grammar is important. It should be okay to sprinkle some passive voice into your writing for sentence variety. Yes, it’s generally a good rule to write with the active voice. But sometimes, rules are meant to be broken.

Arts & Entertainment Editor (Volume 50); Staff Writer (Volume 49) — Hannah is in her final year double majoring in Communications, Culture, Information and Technology (CCIT) and Professional Writing and Communications (PWC). In her spare time, Hannah runs her sticker shop The Aesthetics Studio and listens to podcasts while drawing. Hannah’s previous publications include PWC’s official journal of creative non-fiction in Mindwaves Vol. 15 and research in Compass Vol. 9 and 10. She also served as an Associate Editor for Compass Vol. 9 and Vol. 10. Hannah was a Staff Writer for The Medium Vol. 49 and 50 before becoming the A&E Editor. You can connect with Hannah on LinkedIn.


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